Establish a process for handling any type of customer complaint.

Anyone who has kids – or remembers being a kid –surely knows these words of wisdom, which every mom has recited on the way to open Christmas gifts from Grandma: No matter what she gives you, you just smile and say thank you. As we grow up, we understand the importance of gracefully accepting a gift we might never have cared to get.

In the bakery world, that gift is the customer complaint.

In September at the All Things Baking show in Houston, Renee Rouwhorst of Ryke’s Bakery in Muskegon, MI, taught a class called “A Complaint is a Gift…Really!” The workshop was designed to teach retail bakers how to see a customer complaint as a gift – one that comes in different packages and might not be one you expected or would ever even ask for.

Rouwhorst, who has a background in education and has taught business practices across various industries, admits that accepting complaints isn’t easy, even after more than a decade in the business. “This topic is in part more difficult for me over the years. When people complain, it hits me in my heart; I take it personally,” Rouwhorst says. “I teach this class because it brings me back. It works.”

The most important thing to remember is that prevention is key, because complaints hit your bottom line. After all, it’s cheaper to retain a current customer than it is to find a new one. And research has shown that a customer who had a problem and had it proactively solved, will bring back three times the revenue than a customer who never had a problem to begin with.

And the most important factor in proactively preventing problems is empowering your staff. And that means more than outlining steps in the handbook. You have to establish a process, and then teach and train your employees on how it works. And you have to make sure that employees are invested in the process and empowered to play a part in it.

Different packages

The customer complaint can come in two different forms.

  1. On the spot. This is often the easier scenario, because you can swoop in, be the hero and fix the problem. And when staff is properly trained and empowered to make on-the-spot judgment calls, it becomes even easier.

  2. After the fact. This scenario is the hardest, because the complaint comes in after it’s left your shop, and the complaint can be often be public, like on Facebook, Twitter, or Yelp. In these cases, it just might be that you need to fix the person, rather than the problem itself. And in most cases, empathy will go a long way.

Just fix it

No matter what the scenario, the process remains the same, listed out here. And the most important factor is remaining calm – because both you and the customer is going to be in the “fight or flight” response, and no one is thinking clearly. So before you go into the process, remember a few important things.

  • Breathe. Getting oxygen flow to your brain will help you think more clearly.

  • Change something. Even something as simple as coming out from behind the counter to sit down at a table with the customer will make a huge difference.

  • Write things down. This doesn’t mean to grab a form and fill it out. Take notes on the situation so the customer knows you’re paying attention.

“If you have a customer in a hurry, do anything you can to not let them leave your shop angry,” Rouwhorst says. ”It doesn’t matter what the order said or who did it. Just fix it.” And when you empower your staff, they’ll be ready to go into problem-solving mode and be well-equipped to make judgment calls and keep the process moving.

After all, it doesn’t really matter if the customer is always right. But it’s vital to know that the customer’s perception is always right. “Sometimes complaints can be downright nutty,” Rouwhorst says. “But sometimes you have to just try hard to grit your teeth and say thank you.”